Adam Deem was driving through burned brush in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest west of Redding, Calif., when he spotted a black bear cub teetering oddly in the middle of the road.
It was Thursday morning, weeks into the state’s fire siege. Deem, a forester with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, grabbed a camera from the back seat and took a few photos. Then he noticed that the cub’s fur was singed. Its paws looked badly burned.
Worried, he mimicked the cub’s cry to try to draw the mama bear close.
“He was crying, and between the two of us (crying), if the mother was anywhere nearby, she would have come,” said Deem, 32.
He tracked the bear as it painfully climbed a tree. Still no mother bear. Deem decided to act. He scooped him out of the tree by the scruff.
“He was fighting, trying to bite and scratch me, and I tried to keep out of his way,” Deem said. “Basically I tucked him under my arm, hiked up the hill, climbed up and called the command center.”
Deem drove one-handed to camp where medics hooked the dehydrated cub up to an IV for fluids and treated its third-degree paw burns and a singed left eye. Deem held the cub, whom he had named Lil’ Smokey.
“He licked my neck a little bit and gave me little kisses,” Deem said with a laugh.
Lil’ Smokey, weighing 8 1/2 pounds and estimated to be 6 months old, is at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care in South Lake Tahoe, one of the only centers in the state where cubs can be treated and taught survival skills until ready to return to the wild.
The cub is one of many animals affected by the more than 1,700 fires that have burned in California in the last month. Although wildlife experts said animals have adapted to fires over thousands of years by fleeing or seeking shelter, the earlier start to the fire season has put young animals at risk.
Fire officials and others have tried searching for Lil’ Smokey’s mother without luck. Officials hope to take the cub back into the wild in January or February and place him in a den for the hibernation period.
Some colleagues have questioned whether Deem made the right choice taking an animal out of the wild. But Deem said he would do it again.
“I can’t say that’s right or wrong. All I can say is, when I was there, and I saw him, I just knew I couldn’t leave him because he was gonna die – I knew that,” Deem said. “And I thought, I can’t explain it, something in my heart just turned and I said, I just need to give this guy a chance.”